May 20, 2009


From Moshe Hallamish, “An Introduction to the Kabbalah,” State University of New York (SUNY) Press, 1999 (trans. Ruth Bar-Ilan), Chapter 6, pp. 75-79. We took the liberty of modifying several transliterations due to our inability to replicate the author’s use of letters with dots below them for the Hebrew letters “chet” and “tzaddi.” End notes have been omitted for this online version.

Techniques of Exploring Mysteries

The chapters of prophecy in the Scripture give the impression that the prophet was passive while receiving the divine words of prophecy. The notion that the spirit of prophecy was bestowed upon the prophet irrespective of his own wishes or efforts is in line with the fundamental nature of biblical prophecy as a mission assigned to the individual from above. Nonetheless, the phenomenon of beney nevi'im (II Kings 2:3) is generally interpreted as a circle of “disciples” preparing themselves to receive inspiration. This suggests that prophetic inspiration is also a matter of labor, of taking some active part in the process. When, many generations later, Maimonides considered the prophet's role, he associated it with some strict requirements, even as he recognized that the inspiration of prophecy depended on God's choice and his absolute will. If this is the state of affairs in the world of prophecy, then what happens in the world of hidden mysteries? Does the individual who is worthy of perceiving these mysteries depend on the use of a certain technique to get inspiration, or does inspiration come to him naturally?

Since Kabbalah is an esoteric doctrine that is passed on by oral and personal transmission, by “whispering,” to the tsenuim, the few humble and virtuous men who study it in tsin’ah, in privacy, within confined circles, it is understandable why the Kabbalists are reluctant to disclose their techniques for attaining divine secrets. In this respect, Kabbalah differs from mysticism. While the mystics dwelled on their experiences and the stages necessary for their attainment, the Kabbalists wrote as little as possible about their personal experiences. Yet one can glean from their writings some of the methods that were used for attaining secrets. A considerable number of these ways and means are also common to non-Jewish forms of mysticism, which makes it easier to grasp the nature of their Jewish correlates.

Various sources suggest that, with no special preparations on his part, a man may be endowed with mystical tendencies that qualify him to reach heights at any moment. Other sources explicitly mention specific techniques. Let me introduce some of the techniques that were widespread among the Kabbalists.

In his responsum, Rav Hai Gaon testifies:

“Many scholars thought that when one who is distinguished by many qualities described in the books seeks to behold the merkavah, the ‘divine Chariot,’ and the palaces of the angels on high, he must fast a number of days and place his head between his knees and whisper downward many hymns and songs of praise whose texts are known from tradition.”

The first technique, that of fasting, aims at self-nullification. It is designed to counteract the influence exerted by one's body, thus cleansing and purifying his soul. This is a superhuman condition into which man enters with full consciousness. Something of this sort was conveyed by Moses our master when he stated: “Forty days and forty nights I neither did eat bread nor drink water” (Deuteronomy 9:9). The forty days of fasting (probably implicit in R. Hai Gaon's responsum) also symbolize the time it takes for the formation of the embryo, as stated in the Talmud. This suggests that after a continuous fast, the person is reborn in a renewed state of purity. Perhaps, too, it signifies the obliteration of individuality by being fused with, and integrated into, the universal soul.

Significantly, fasting is associated with a well-defined posture of the body: sitting with one's head between one's knees. This technique is already mentioned in the biblical stories of Elijah the prophet (I Kings 18:42) and in the striking talmudic story of the repentant (Eleazar ben Dordia) who in contrition adopted this posture and wept, whereupon his soul departed from his body (Avodah Zarah 17a, and see also Berakhot 34b). This practice signified a return to the embryonic state, the position of the embryo in its mother's womb (see Nidah 30b). By the analogy to the embryo, this posture indicates that a new man is about to be born, a pure man, who is therefore worthy of perceiving divine mysteries.

The motif of pure renewal also underlies the legal procedure of seder malkot (punishment by lashing) as implemented in the city of Hebron in the sixteenth century. At the first stage, the repentant is “crouching” submissively. At the second stage, when the dayyanim, (religious judges) absolve him of his vow, he “sits with his head between his knees.” The difference in the descriptive terms is intentional. The second posture is reminiscent of the embryonic state, thus suggesting that after repentance, a newborn person, cleansed and pure, faces the world (Sheney Luchot ha-Berit, fol. 227b).

Let us turn to a dramatic description that appears in the Zohar (III, fol. 166b):

“[Rabbi Simeon] began his discourse by saying: ‘. . . Torah, Torah, what should I say about you? You are ayelet ahavim [a lovely doe] and ya'alat chen [a graceful gazelle], above and below. Who amongst your lovers would merit to be properly nourished by you? Torah, Torah, the delight of your Master. Who could uncover and disclose your secrets and hidden treasures?’ He wept and placed his head between his knees and kissed the dust, whereupon he saw several of the companions standing around him. They said to him: ‘Do not fear, ben Yohai; do not fear, the Holy Luminary. Write and rejoice in the happiness of your Lord.’ He then wrote down all he had heard that night and meditated upon it without forgetting anything. And that [hidden] light was shining for him all through the night. When the day had dawned, he lifted his eyes and saw a vision of light illuminating the firmament. He cast down his eyes, and, lifting them up again, he saw a light illuminating the whole firmament and the contours of the Temple appeared in that light in several images. R. Simeon rejoiced, whereupon that light vanished from his sight and was concealed. Meanwhile, those two celestial messengers arrived. They found him with his head between his knees and said to him: ‘Peace be with you, our master; peace to he whom the upper and the lower worlds wish to welcome. Stand up.’ R. Simeon stood up and rejoiced with them.”

According to the above excerpt, while sitting in the given posture Rabbi Simeon saw certain visions. This technique is mentioned later on, for example in Eben ha-Shoham (1538) by R. Joseph ibn Tsayach Among other things, the author advises the reader “to isolate himself and meditate in solitude on matters known to us in this wisdom, and to bend his head like a reed between his knees until all his senses are numb. Then he shall see the supernal lights manifestly, and not just suggestively.”

In the seventeenth century, R. Aaron Berakhyah of Modena recommended the same technique: "Behold how good it is to place one's head between one's knees.” He also offered a symbolic explanation for this posture.

According to the above excerpt, R. Simeon bar Yohai was sitting on the ground. Perhaps this detail is implicit in the wording of R. Hai Gaon's responsum “and whispers downward,” to which I will soon return. As a rule, it can be assumed that every case of sitting with one's head between one's knees entails sitting on the ground. Sitting on the ground is significant in itself, regardless of whether or not it involves the given posture.

Sitting on the ground, amidst the dust, usually symbolizes humility. This is also the opinion of R. Moses Cordovero: “And I heard that the ancients used to sit on the ground when they taught this wisdom to their disciples, in order to subdue them and frighten them.” Presumably, they adopted this posture not only in the presence of their masters and teachers. But sitting on the ground may also signify reestablishing contact with the earth by returning to the source—in the sense of “for thou art dust and to dust shalt thou return” (Genesis 3:19). Contrarily, those practising yoga make sure they sit on some sort of a mattress that would separate them from the ground proper.

As for “and [he must] whisper downward many hymns and songs of praise,” even this detail is found in non-Jewish forms of mysticism. Singing puts the mystic in a certain trance. Sometimes the mystics chant a certain word faster and faster. At other times, a more elaborate recitation of poetry is involved. We know of some hymns that the “descenders into the Chariot” used to hear during contemplation and perhaps these urged them to take part in the spiritually uplifting panegyrics. A parallel to the excerpt from R. Hai Gaon's responsum reads as follows:

“It is specified in the Heikhalot [literature] that the sages who were worthy of this, prayed and cleaned themselves of all impurity, and fasted and bathed themselves and became pure and they used the Names and gazed at the Heikhalot.”

This text lists prayer as one of the components of mystical preparation. In this context, praying is self-evident, and perhaps the prayer included a personal request for divine assistance. At any event, in later generations we find “a prayer to be recited before studying the Kabbalah.” This prayer finds expression in various formulations, most of which repeat the Psalmist's wish: “Open thou my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy Torah” (Ps. 119:18).

At times, these prayers involved uttering the holy Names, as indicated in the above excerpt: “and they used the Names.” This practice, which is reminiscent of the Indian mantra, functioned like the chanting of a magic word. It was supposed to establish contact with the appropriate supernal powers that could be of help in the given case. Presumably, it is against such an attempt on the part of unworthy persons that the Tanna mentioned in Avot (I, 13) and its parallels warns that “u-de-ishtamash be-taga chalaf,” namely, he who exploits the crown (of the Name) for his personal benefit shall pass away before his time.

A strong criticism, which provides an interesting description of current kabbalistic practices, is also voiced by Rabbi Moshe Taku of the thirteenth century. This Ashkenazi chakham complains about the chaserey da'at (those lacking knowledge) who believe that they are able to transform themselves into prophets and train themselves to utter the holy names. Sometimes they are so focused on uttering the names that their soul takes fright and their body drops down in exhaustion, as if nothing separates the body from the soul; the soul then becomes the essential and is far-sighted. Yet, after a while, when the power of the name they uttered is removed from them, they resume their former state, while their mind is overwhelmed.

Finally, let me quote a concluding warning of Rabbi Moses Hayyim Luzzatto: “After he proved himself to possess the virtues we mentioned so far, beginning with watchfulness and up to fear of sin, he will sanctify himself and will prosper. For if the former are missing, he is like a common man and a cripple.” Apparently, it is no coincidence that Luzzatto used the terms a “common man” and a “cripple.” It is as if he wished to convey that this practice is holy labor, which corresponds to the service of the priest in the Temple. Just as no one is allowed to administer the sacrifices in the Temple save the priest, who must be intact, without any flaw, so also the Kabbalist's labor is a holy service performed by a holy man.